Kunitz in odd spot, faces former team
TAMPA, Fla. — Chris Kunitz’s tenure in Pittsburgh hardly could have had a better ending.
Scoring a Game 7 doubleovertime winner in the Eastern Conference final, en route to his fourth career Stanley Cup title, is the stuff of storybooks.
But it didn’t take long after the celebrations and parade died down for reality to set in. Kunitz, set to face the Penguins Thursday night for the first time as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning, said he knew shortly into the offseason that his time with the Penguins likely was finished.
“I think the writing was on the wall for them the whole time,” Kunitz said Thursday morning.
“Eventually, it comes down to making decisions and the future of your team. Obviously, Pittsburgh has a lot of highly-skilled young forwards that were pushing the envelope even the last couple of years to get more ice time. It’s just part of the business.”
Kunitz certainly holds no ill will against his former team — he’s still good friends with many of his old teammates and has engaged in some “normal friendship banter” leading up to this game — but he was hoping the Penguins would leave Tampa Thursday night with a loss.
“Just because they’re some friends and people you spent a lot of time with, it doesn’t mean you’re going to take it easy on them,” Kunitz said. “Maybe you’ll know some of their tricks of the trade that can hopefully help your team pull out a win.”
If anyone knows the nuances of the Penguins superstars, it’s Kunitz, who came to Pittsburgh in a trade in 2009. In nine seasons with the team, he was a regular on Sidney Crosby’s left side, and was one of the five players to play on all three Penguins Stanley Cup teams.
In July, he signed a oneyear, $2 million contract with the Lightning as an unrestricted free agent. Even though they were up against the salary cap, the Penguins likely could have matched the contract — or at least come close — but, as Kunitz said, they apparently made the decision to move on and get younger.
Kunitz wasn’t technically a member of the Penguins when he enjoyed his day with the Stanley Cup this summer, but said he enjoyed it just as much as the previous three (he also won one in Anaheim in 2007).
“Probably more enjoyable,” he said. “You’re a little bit older, kids are a little bit older. They all realize they get to have a party with their friends and this is one of the first years we’ve actually had it in the morning and been able to spend some time alone at our house with it with the kids.”
Kunitz said he chose the Lightning, in part, because of the chance to get another day with the Cup next summer. Tampa Bay was one game away from the final in 2016 before losing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference final to Kunitz and the Penguins.
“You look at the potential of the room and the guys that they have, the caliber of the players,” Kunitz said. “Just from playing against this team in the past, we knew that they were always a dangerous team.”
Kunitz has done his part to contribute in his brief time in Tampa Bay. He scored his first goal in blue and white in the Lightning’s 4-3 comeback win Monday night against Washington.
“Kind of knocks some of the nerves off to help contribute in wins to start your career,” Kunitz said.
“To be able to find one, get on the board and beat a good Washington team. We were down in the game, it’s something that you obviously think is special when you score your first goal in a new uniform.”
This actually won’t be the first time many of the Penguins see Kunitz in a Lightning uniform, though. When he was displaced recently by the hurricanes in Florida, Kunitz returned to Pittsburgh and skated — in Lightning gear — with some of his old teammates.
Kunitz said he hoped that having that brief experience going against his long-time friends might make Thursday night a bit easier.
“Not a rude awakening, but something that took off the edge of maybe playing in this game,” he said. “To me, it didn’t look any different, but, to them, obviously I was wearing blue and in a different color out there. I think that hopefully helped in the transition of being here and making myself feel welcome down in Tampa.”
The best way to ingratiate himself in his new city would be contributing to a win against the two-time defending Stanley Cup champions. Lightning coach Jon Cooper even said he was hoping Kunitz would get a goal Thursday night against his old team.
“I know just in the short time he’s been here, what he probably meant to Pittsburgh in all the years he was there,” Cooper said. “He’s just somebody you want on your team. I’m pretty sure over there they’ve got a lot of respect for him.
“I know Chris Kunitz is not going to change the way he plays. He’s got the Bolts colors on now and he’s going to do everything to help us win. I’m just glad he’s on our bench and not theirs.”